Olivia Y plaintiffs to Bryant: Replace CPS head or go to court

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The plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit against Mississippi’s foster care system are taking the state back to court after the governor refused their request to remove the current head of the agency.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Child Protection Services executive director Jess Dickinson has made progress in past 14 months, said Gov. Phil Bryant.

Citing a “failure of leadership,” attorneys for plaintiffs in the Olivia Y. lawsuit asked a federal judge on Thursday to appoint an outside receiver to run the agency. Marcia Lowry told Mississippi Today that she filed the motion for contempt only after the plaintiffs asked Gov. Phil Bryant to remove current head of Child Protection Services, Jess Dickinson, and appoint new leadership.

Lowry said under Dickinson’s leadership, the agency is even farther from complying with the terms of the settlement in Olivia Y., the 2004 lawsuit responsible for completely dismantling and then rebuilding the state’s foster care agency. Lowry cited the agency’s struggle to staff enough caseworkers as a ongoing issue that “puts Mississippi’s children at risk.”

“Since (Dickinson’s appointment in September) it has been an increasingly discouraging prospect,” Lowry said. “I do not believe the current administration is going to be able to deal with the serious problems they have.”

But in a statement to Mississippi Today, Bryant doubled-down on his support for Dickinson, saying the former Supreme Court Justice was steering the beleaguered agency in the right direction.

“I am pleased with the progress CPS has made, including reducing by 700 the number of children in foster care the last 14 months and nearly doubling the number of adoptions in the current fiscal year. I am confident that progress will continue under current leadership as we vigorously oppose plaintiffs’ latest legal maneuvering,” Bryant said in the statement.

In a news conference on economic development Thursday afternoon, Bryant also said in response to a question about the motion for contempt that “we believe we are in compliance.”

The agency’s data appears to confirm the numbers Bryant states. According to Child Protection Services, the number of children in the state foster care system has dropped dramatically since April 2017, going from 6,094 to 5,403 in May 2018. In fiscal year 2017, CPS finalized 302 adoptions. For fiscal year 2018, which ends June 30, the agency has already finalized 574 adoptions.

But the agency is not in compliance with the terms of the Olivia Y. settlement, according to data released earlier this month. According to the terms of the Olivia Y. settlement, Child Protection Services must have enough caseworkers on staff to properly handle all of the children currently monitored by the agency.

Data released earlier this month indicates that Child Protection Services is still struggling to maintain minimum staffing requirements. At the end of 2017, only 61 percent of caseworkers had caseloads small enough to comply with the settlement, according to Public Catalyst, the consulting firm hired to monitor the agency. The target for that date had been 90 percent.

As of May 15, the numbers were even worse—only 52 percent of caseworkers were overseeing the correct number of cases.

The reason for this is complex. Since the first of the year, CPS has added 22 caseworkers, going from 823 to 845. And while, as Bryant mentioned, the number of children in foster care has declined by 700 over the last 14 months, the total number of cases being monitored by CPS employees has actually increased, surging from 14,476 to 15,693.

In an April meeting, Dickinson explained that the agency had been steadily hiring new employees but that the sheer number of children in the state system, particularly on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, made it difficult to meet the settlement’s requirements.

In addition, for fiscal year 2019, the Legislature funded the agency at the same level as it had the previous year—$110 million, a problem, Dickinson said in April, if the agency is required to bring on even more staff. As a result, Dickinson suggested that the strict requirements of Olivia Y. may not always echo what’s in the best interest of the child.

“We are going item by item down this budget, and we’re trying to determine what we have to spend, what can I cut that will least affect the safety our our children,” Dickinson said. “And I am making those decisions irrespective of Olivia Y requirements? I don’t want to put a child in danger just to avoid criticism in the Olivia Y litigation.”

But Lowry countered that a child, not properly supervised, is also a child at risk. That is, in effect, the origin of the Olivia Y. litigation. In 2004, six children in foster care sued the state of Mississippi for failing to adequately provide for children in state custody. A federal court sided with the plaintiffs, known collectively as Olivia Y, and the resulting settlement has completely remade the agency—and made staffing requirements one of the pillars of this new agency.